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By Millie Jackson
In the early 1970s months were not designated by a colored ribbon or events to draw attention to a disease. There were no pink ribbons in October or blue ribbons in November. But the two diseases that now get much attention during those months, breast cancer and diabetes, were already prevalent in society.
In the early 1970s, my world focused on band, watching baseball, listening to the radio, and junior high. My mother focused on an accident my father had been in and on her breast cancer diagnosis and later on learning she was also a type 2 diabetic. She ignored signs for months because she was so busy taking care of everyone else.
I have many questions that will never be answered. How did she discover her cancer in an era before regular mammograms? What did her doctor tell her? Were there any options? Was a radical mastectomy really necessary, or was it the normal course of treatment? How did she know she was diabetic? Did she just feel bad or was it discovered in conjunction with tests and appointments for the cancer?
There are things I do know and remember. I recall the pain she suffered after the cancer surgery. She tried to hide it, but I could see it. I remember the women who rallied around her, women who also had survived breast cancer. Breast cancer was not a topic of conversation in 1972 and it was an age before women openly shared their stories, but these women came forward to support my mom.
I also remember vials of insulin lined up in the refrigerator and a shoebox with needles that she used to poke herself with the drug that helped save her life. Diabetes also was not discussed, and it was a strange new thing for us to deal with in our family. She did not talk much about either condition.
My mother’s health affected the whole family. The women in my family were there for my mother, especially her sisters. One aunt became a fervent crusader and fundraiser for cancer awareness, continuing her work until late in her life. Other women in the family began being tested for diabetes. Almost every female on both sides of the family wound up with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
My most enduring lesson about my health has been not to ignore the signs and to pay attention to my own health. Both blood tests and mammograms began at an earlier age than normal due to family history. My awareness and actions grew as I got older. I became involved in advocacy, education, and fundraising for cancer and diabetes organizations. In my 40s I faced my own scare with breast cancer that fortunately turned out to be a benign cyst. I changed my life in the my early 50s in an effort to ward off type 2 diabetes.
The statistics for both breast cancer and diabetes are staggering. Breast cancer still impacts more women than almost any other cancer and 1 in 10 people have some type of diabetes. While the causes of breast cancer are still not entirely known, many of the indicators for type 2 diabetes are known so behaviors can change. Early detection in both diseases provides more options for treatment. Knowing the signs, being educated, and acting as your own advocate are all important. In some, but not all, cases, preventive measures can be taken to improve health.
Sometimes women’s voices are still not listened to regarding our health concerns. If that happens, ask for help. Ask questions. Think critically about the information you are hearing and reading. Assistance and information are available through support networks, non-profits that advocate for treatment, education, and research, as well as through women’s organizations that support wellbeing.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month has ended for 2020. November is Diabetes Awareness Month and November 14 is World Diabetes Day. Soon it will be December and we will move on to thinking about holidays and the end of the year. Education, advocacy, and funding do not end, however. They need attention all year, not just one month.
Millie Jackson is a writer, certified health educator and coach, storyteller, and yoga teacher. You can learn more about her at www.millieljackson.com